The ancient Egyptians were not prudes and seemed to have no guilt about sex. In fact, sex was a very important part of their lives. Archaeologists have identified many ways that the creators of papyrus and the builder of pyramids, valued active sex lives. This is a brief look at a few of the sexual health behaviors and concerns of ancient Egyptians. Their concerns are similar to those that we have today: impotency, contraception and experiencing pleasure.

The walls of ancient Egyptian tombs and temples display erotic scenes. The Turin papyrus contains 12 positions of intercourse. These love manuals and artistic representations are only indications that sexual behaviors were well integrated into the lives of ancient Egyptians. It is also known that the power of sexual energy was connected to the afterlife. The mummy of men, yes- only men- was to maintain the man’s sexual power as a catalyst for him to enter the afterlife.

Egyptian gods were human enough to know the value and pleasure of sex. The focus on sexual power is part of the Egyptian creation myth.
The creation of the world was instigated by the Sun God creating himself in the beginning, when this first step had been completed he produced two other Gods, Shu, the air, and Tefenet, humidity, by masturbation. In one of the creation legends, it is described how the God of creation created the other Gods with his hand, that is, by masturbation. In another papyrus, a variant to this account is depicted; the God uses his mouth instead of his hand.

Perhaps we can credit the obvious concern that ancient Egyptians had about male impotency to their deeply held religious beliefs and desire to reach the afterlife. Whether it is religion or just the ‘nature of the beast’, impotence got the attention of the early healers. Various remedies and potions were developed to cure the condition. Some potions were applied directly to the ‘limb’ or taken internally.

Potions and prayers to address a wide variety of sexual issues were included in the Papyrus papers from about 1000 BC. Love potions and recipes were available to win a woman’s love, to make a woman love her husband and one to assure that a woman enjoyed intercourse. If available today, such potions would be flying off the shelves and the marketing slogans would promise the world.

Though creative/not necessarily effective contraceptive techniques existed since 300 BC, science did not really discover the function of seminal fluid until the 17th century. Understanding that semen contained millions of sperm keenly changed the possibility of preventing a pregnancy. Despite the lack of scientific knowledge, the ancient Egyptians intuitively made the connection between pregnancy and semen. The Papyrus papers provide certain recipes to block the cervix from receiving the semen. Once such recipe is packing a spongy material in the vagina to absorb the semen and prevent it from entering the womb- a precursor to the diaphragm and cervical cap. Other recipes included crocodile dung to mixtures of honey that were mixed into a paste and packed into the vagina similar to a tampon. Rates of effectiveness are unknown and the manner in which these pastes were inserted is also unclear. Knowing that a woman’s fingers are not long enough to make the insertion complete, we can only assume that there was some kind of tool designed to assist in proper insertion. The Egyptians were chemically astute and somehow knew that the liquid would be slowed down by thick and acidic solutions.

It is important to acknowledge that a wide variety of other methods were used to limit population in addition to the wonders of crocodile dung and other chemical concoctions. Abstinence, abortion, infanticide, homosexuality and zoophilia were available options. Withdrawal was also an (unreliable) option and prolonged breastfeeding was known to reduce pregnancy.

The need for contraception was particularly important to women in the different strata of Egyptian society. The royal family practiced incest to keep the strong blood ties from generation to generation. Sons married mothers and brothers and sisters were wed in order to maintain lineage and power. In the rest of the land, two types of marriage were practiced: matriarchal and patriarchal unions. The matriarchal union was initiated by the woman and ended only on her word. The man controlled the patriarchal marriage. In the second case, the woman could be beaten or held in a status similar to that of a slave depending on her husband’s whim. Domestic violence (the modern term for wife abuse) was common and accepted. Ironically, in this system women/daughters were to receive the inheritance of property as well as the responsibility of taking care of their elder parents. This is a good thing, since women were not able to engage in any profession other than entertainer and prostitute.

Marriage and partnering was a complicated situation at all social levels because concubines and foreign slave girls were plentiful and accessible. In addition, monogamous relationships were not the norm in all segments of the lower class. Communal living was common.

It is always interesting to look back at the way our ancestors lived. To imagine love and lust before ‘the pill, Viagra’ or Freud; before we really understood reproduction and compared our behaviors to those of gods is more than a challenge. In many ways, it seems the behaviors were similar, yet it seems that the emotions and expectations have changed. Today there is much more emphasis on emotional connection, loyalty and forever love and the contradictions of acceptable casual sex! These expectations are held together by a plethora of laws, inconsistent social conventions and personal dreams and desires. Life and love/sex is complicated and never boring. Look to the SmartSex app for wider perspectives on sex – even when they are about ancient civilizations.

Joyce Lisbin

• Sex in History by Reay Tannahill
• The Mythology of Sex by Sarah Dening

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