The popular perception of Western history is that humans have grown less puritanical over time; compare, for instance, how the sight of an ankle (on a man or woman) was considered shocking in 18th and 19th-century Victorian culture. Given our current attitudes towards clothing, clearly something has shifted, as even the percentage of one's bare skin that is socially acceptable has increased linearly since then.
Yet there are some subjects that we are far more prudish about than our historical counterparts. Case in point: oral sex, which is apt to provoke squeamishness among, say, media execs and priests today. Yet ancient Egyptian priests would have eagerly and publicly conversed with you about oral sex, because it was a crucial aspect of both their culture and religion.
"Sucking himself off... is thought that this is a symbolic representation of the way in which the earth can create things out of itself all by itself."
To understand why, look no further than the Book of the Dead of Henuttawy. It can be found in a funerary papyrus in the British Museum, a phrase that when read aloud makes the document sound quite serious and perhaps even wholesome. Yet in this holy scroll, the Egyptians depict their Earth god Geb — a deity so important that the planet itself was referred to as the "House of Geb" — performing an act that lends a different meaning to his nickname as the father of snakes.
Section of Book of the Dead of Henuttawy (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
"Sucking himself off" was the phrase used by Dr. Richard Bruce Parkinson, a Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford. Unpacking the image for Salon, Parkinson explained that "it is thought that this is a symbolic representation of the way in which the earth can create things out of itself all by itself. It seems to be an image of a self-sustaining act; in Egyptian mythology, anything to do with creation is often conceived of as a sexual act."
While Geb's act of self-pleasure is no doubt memorable, it was hardly a solitary depiction in Egyptian artifacts. Parkinson also recalled how Atum the creator God in one popular myth "begets the first generation of gods after himself, as the sole creator, with an act of masturbation." Depending on the source, the act of masturbation is either manual (only involving the hand) or can involve both Atum's mouth and his hand. Regardless, however, it is clear that Egyptians who shared these stories so frequently that they were part of common conversation did not view them as particularly shocking, even if it leads to images that Parkinson admits are "striking to modern eyes."
"I think it's quite fun to realize that a male deity performing that act on himself, [which] for us is basically something pornographic" was mundane to Egyptians to the point where, unlike today, you could "expect to see in the highest, most prestigious levels of religious imagery."
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Bronze figure of Amun-Kamutef (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
As the above bronze figure of the fertility god Amun-Kamutef reinforces, Egyptian reverence for sexuality was not limited to its masturbatory and oral manifestations. Parkinson pointed out to Salon that, while we do not know a lot about Egyptians' day-to-day perceptions on sexuality, "there is a great deal of sexual imagery in religious iconography. It's very common to see gods with erect phalluses, which is an expression of strength, masculinity and also for virility. And when the god of the dead Osiris is resurrected, one aspect of this is his ability to have an erection."
It's very common to see gods with erect phalluses, which is an expression of strength, masculinity and also for virility. And when the god of the dead, Osiris is resurrected, one aspect of this is his ability to have an erection."
It is important, of course, to not overstate the Egyptians' permissive attitudes toward sex. In fact, in many ways ancient Egyptians were just as intolerant as their Old Testament Jewish counterparts. Extra-marital relations and adultery were harshly condemned, and the consequences of being caught were fatal to women. There is also evidence that Egyptians did not approve of oral sex when it was performed by one man to another "man who copulates" or one who was penetrated during intercourse. Yet this does not mean that Egyptians were homophobic (in the modern sense); their language did not have words for "homosexual," "heterosexual" or "bisexual." They did not conceive of "gender" as a construct, although their notions of it can be broadly construed as binary. Egyptians simply did not conceive of sex acts in ways that fit neatly into modern heteronormative discourse. For instance, in the Old Kingdom tale "Contendings of Horus and Seth," the falcon-headed god Horus catches in his hand the semen of another god, Seth, as the latter attempts to anally penetrate him. When Horus shows Seth's semen to his mother Isis, she cuts off Horus' hand and throws it into a river while putting Horus' own semen on Seth's lettuce, which Seth then consumes.
Such narratives, needless to say, defy conventional categorization.
Perhaps because Egyptian sexual mores seem foreign today, they have also inspired a lot of false facts about their culture that circulate periodically. One popular online urban legend holds that Egyptians invented lipstick because it helped women's lips appear like engorged labia. While it is certainly commendable to encourage clitoral pleasure during sex, the idea that Egyptians were such amazing lovers that they flaunted it on their faces is not supported by historical evidence.
"It's a culture that has been viewed from colonialist and orientalist perspectives, and that means there are an awful lot of inaccurate urban myths."
"It's a culture that has been viewed from colonialist and orientalist perspectives, and that means there are an awful lot of inaccurate urban myths," Parkinson told Salon. As for the lipstick myth, "there is a scene in a papyrus in the Turin museum which shows a lady painting her lips, but she is using something that looks like a brush. So there is lip paint, but no lipstick. Is there evidence that this had anything to do with oral sex? Absolutely not, no!"
Overall, the Egyptian view towards oral sex reflects a culture which took certain aspects of sexuality for granted and which are viewed as outside the parameters of polite conversation today.
"There are love songs in ancient Egypt celebrating sexual desire and its consummation, but as with all literature, you can't use that as a documentary source for social realities," Parksinson observed. "It seems though that on the whole, compared to European attitudes, there was a straightforward, open celebratory view of sexuality meaning the sort of sexuality that results in children, so normal heterosexual intercourse." Sexual desire itself was "very much celebrated, and that sort of sexual activity was also used as a metaphor for life after death. People would attain eternal life in a process of rebirth for which sexual imagery was often used, as with creation."