What is more interesting than pyramids, rich and powerful pharaohs and mummies? Sexuality. Take a look at what governed the Ancient Egyptians’ daily life.
Ancient Egypt is celebrated for its remarkable discoveries in the fields of architecture, medicine, and government. However, many historians leave out the most important and more interesting topic: sexuality. According to the 1969 study of Yehudi Cohen, all societies associate sexual behavior with symbolism besides its normal biological function. It is important for us to understand that sexuality is an ever-changing category.
Over the centuries, religious beliefs, current affairs, moral issues, political conquests, and the growing need for people to express their opinions have contributed to the most current definitions of sexuality. Because of this, many of the norms of the past are considered taboo today. During the Dynastic Period of Egypt, sexuality was often linked to all stages and aspects of life, including the afterlife, as well as religion. The expression of sexuality was quite vast. Over the next few articles, we will take a closer look at some facets of Ancient Egypt including family dynamics, iconography and beauty, and religion; including creation myths and the afterlife.
To begin this series, let’s take a look at sexual expression within the family unit. Studies by Hendrix and Schneider reveal three important assumptions about families. First, the nuclear family, which includes two parents and at least one child, is the minimum family unit everywhere. That being said, we assume that a man and woman come together for the sake of procreation. Based on this statement, it can also be assumed that having more wives was not only reserved for sexual pleasure, but to also form alliances with neighboring families or societies.
The second assumption about families is that all societies have free choice in mate selection. If both mates are able to choose each other, it is the best guess that they are first attracted to each other by physical appearance. The final assumption is that marriage is the primary sexual mating relationship in all societies. This means that in most cultures people will form a bond to provide themselves with a sexual companion not only for bearing children but to also have for pleasure.
Role of the wife
The social role of the wife in Ancient Egypt was exceptionally high in comparison to many other cultures. In most cases she was considered equal to her husband. If a woman was married to a king, often times she was his primary adviser and held the throne when he died. His wife and no other woman could only fulfill this role because only she was considered “the god’s wife” and good enough to take over. Fieldwork by Hassan and Smith in 2002 reveals that many kings came to power by associating themselves with certain female goddesses.
Adultery and rape
Although most pharaohs and some commoners had acquired more than one and perhaps several wives, sex outside of marriage was considered taboo. Adultery was considered a “heinous offense” and was often viewed as a punishable crime. Rape was considered appalling and the assailant was usually punished as well. One might think the opposite considering that sexuality was such an open aspect of life, but even in the case of the Egyptians, there were boundaries.
However, premarital sex was not considered taboo in any way and was often practiced. As mentioned, when married most often a ruler would take a wife to create a political alliance with prospective allies. However, this was an area taken advantage of since we know today that Ramses II had fathered over 90 children. In ancient times, having more children helped a man to rise to a higher social status. Men were often chastised for fathering no or few children. Obviously, Ramses enjoyed the idea that his “bonds” could be used in ways other than political means.
Another stigma associated with the family of Ancient Egypt is that of incest. By definition incest is an “act among kinsmen”. This practice was more common in the urban areas and amongst the pharaohs and nobility. This could be due to the fact that royal succession was linked to elite groups and therefore only certain people were “pure” enough to form a bond with. We see this practice in English, Greek and Roman ancestry as well, especially amongst cousins.
The gods of the Egyptian pantheon, including the famous brother-sister couple Osiris and Isis, justified the idea of incest. Incestuous relations in Ancient Egypt seem to be successful in that siblings are usually separated during the sensitizing years. Segregation between sexes at early ages sometimes lead to voluntary sibling marriages at older ages. In other words, if they are not raised together, they do not associate themselves as being family and therefore will be more likely to form a sexual bond when they are older.
- Baber, R. E. 1935. Marriage and family life in Ancient Egypt. Social Forces 13(3):409-414.
- Cohen, Yehudi A. 1969. Ends and means in political control: state organization and the
- punishment of adultery, incest, and violation. American Anthropologist 71(4): 658-687.
- Hendrix, L. and M.A. Schneider. 1999. Assumption on sex and society in the biosocial theory of earth. Cross-Cultural Research 33(2): 193-218.
- Hornblower, G.D. 1943. The Egyptian fertility rite: postscript. Man 43: 26-34.
- Meskell, Lynn. 1999. Archaeologies of social life: age, sex, class et cetera in ancient Egypt. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.
- Middleton, Russell. 1962. Brother-sister and father-daughter marriage in ancient Egypt.
- American Sociological Review 27(5): 603-611.