From sexual innuendo to 'trial' marriages — the ancient Egyptians were not so different to us when it came to affairs of the heart. Here, Charlotte Booth explores how the ancient inhabitants of the Nile Valley lived and loved. Some may think the behaviour of ancient Egyptians is far removed from that of the modern world but when it comes to the basics of love, sex and marriage, their behaviour is rather familiar.
They displayed the same doubts, fears and motivations, and all that separates the ancient Egyptians from the modern world is how such emotions were acted upon. This idea of sex as taboo can be seen as a throwback to the Victorian era, which in itself was a reaction to the lascivious behaviour of the Georgians. However, such embarrassment is not something a typical ancient Egyptian would have understood.
To the Egyptians, sex was a life staple, on a par with eating and sleeping and therefore not something to be sniggered at, embarrassed about or avoided. The Egyptian language for example — like modern English — had many words for sexual intercourse, with the most common being nk.
This was used to describe the male agent of the sexual act and was acceptable in daily parlance. As in modern English, the Egyptians had various words for describing feminine sexual organs including Xnmt uterus , iwf flesh , kns pubic area , or k3t vulva.
It is often said that nothing is new, and in some cases this appears to be true. The ancient Egyptians also used sexual language to insult, to curse and as general exclamations. The only image of a couple making love is a hieroglyphic sign in a Middle Kingdom tomb c.
Unfortunately, due to hundreds of tour guides and visitors touching it over the years, this unique image has long since been worn away. Luckily it was copied in the 19th century so we know what it looked like. The artistic scenes which hint at but do not actually show intercourse give the impression that sex was not always a private affair, as there were often servants or children depicted in the vicinity, sometimes even on the bed.
Upon examination, the houses at ancient village sites like El Lahun, Amarna and Deir el Medina were indeed small and crowded. Many of the lower-class homes were formed of a maximum of four rooms and a flat roof. However, in these four rooms lived a couple, their children which, on average, could be as many as ten , unmarried female relatives, unmarried siblings, and grandparents.
Being able to find time alone to have sex would have been difficult if not impossible, so it is likely that sex was not necessarily something to be performed in seclusion but through stolen moments, opportunely or quietly whilst others around slept. Whilst sex was a normal part of everyday life, it was still considered preferable within the confines of marriage. Therefore, it was normal for most people to be married, often at a young age. Many young people entertained thoughts of the opposite sex, and New Kingdom love poetry is filled with sexual and romantic desires in addition to unrequited love.
These poems also provide insight into the cultural practices of the time. It would be fascinating to know the background to this relationship and why he tried to move in with her only to be rejected twice. Did she change her mind at the last minute?
Or did he misinterpret their relationship? Sadly, we may never know. For the majority of the population, marriage was undocumented. The couple simply started cohabiting. However wealthy couples would often draw up contracts outlining the financial consequences of a divorce. Married life in ancient Egypt was hardly different to those of today, and a married couple had many of the same concerns: essentially raising, feeding and providing a home for their family.
Even when in the first throes of love, ancient Egyptians acted the same as any modern love-struck teenager. However, not all ancient Egyptian marriages were perfect and the medical papyri suggest that men would often consult a doctor due to sexual problems within their marriage. Add the blood of a tick from a black dog, a drop of blood from the ring finger of your left hand and your semen. Crush it to a compact mass, place it in a cup of wine … and let the woman drink it. There is little doubt that it would be difficult to persuade an disinterested wife to drink such a potion, but if she did, it was believed she would fall hopelessly in love with her husband again.
She should not make love. She should not have sexual intercourse. Marriages however, dissolved for a number of reasons, with the most common being lack of children or adultery.
It is not surprising that both sexes were in fact guilty of this. Both men and women committed adultery, and both men and women were able to instigate a divorce due to this. It is in the latter category that adultery fell, and the Instruction of Ani 21st or 22nd dynasty c. Do not go after a woman; do not let her steal your heart. Such advice sometimes fell on deaf ears, as with a Deir el Medina bad-boy named Paneb. He was accused of adultery with various women in the village, including a woman called Hunro.
Hunro was unfaithful to two husbands, first to Pendua and then to her second husband Hesysunebef; both husbands divorced her. Another rogue from the village of Deir el Medina was Merysekhmet, who had an affair with the wife of a servant. The servant reported him to the authorities and Merysekhmet promised to keep away from her. However, he continued sleeping with her and she became pregnant. He once more promised to keep away from the woman.
Whilst divorce was generally granted for adultery, if the husband wished it he could call for his adulterous wife to be severely punished, in some cases with mutilation or execution.
Such harsh punishments, however, were generally the plots of literary tales, and divorce was easier and more common in the real world. Being divorced held no social stigma and both men and women remarried and many went on to have large families.
However, if a woman divorced when she was older than 30 years old, she was unlikely to get remarried. At this age, she would be considered to be elderly and unlikely to bear any further children. This does not mean they became marginal to society; there were a group of unattached women living at Deir el Medina, who have been identified by different scholars as divorced or unmarried women, if not prostitutes, although the evidence is not conclusive either way.
When dealing with affairs of the heart, whether in the modern world or in ancient Egypt, there is a lot of information that is simply not recorded. We are able, to a certain degree, to piece together an idea of how the ancient inhabitants of the Nile Valley conducted their relationships and their approach to sex and relationships. But whilst it is certainly incomplete, it is all familiar — the ancient Egyptians were not so different to us when it came to relationships; they lived, loved, married and divorced.
Love, sex and marriage in ancient Egypt From sexual innuendo to 'trial' marriages — the ancient Egyptians were not so different to us when it came to affairs of the heart. January 23, at am. The paintings at Saqqara show that the ancient Egyptians also used sexual language to insult. Fight scenes on the walls of Kethi tomb, Beni Hasan, Egypt, where the only image of a couple making love was found. Unfortunately, due to hundreds of people touching it over the years, this unique image has long since been worn away.
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