Cult of Hathor included deflowering with votive phalluses: Orriols-Llonch

The PhD in Egyptology talked to EL UNIVERSAL about his dissertation "Sexuality in Ancient Egypt. A lexical and cultural study".

English 09/12/2015 10:57 Actualizada 12:17
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By Giselle Rodríguez

For all we know about pyramids, battles and beliefs in ancient Egypt, sexuality continues to be a fairly unexplored area of this civilization. That is why the work of Dr. Marc Orriols-Llonch, Phd in Egyptology from Barcelona's Autonomous University specialized in gender studies and sexuality in Ancient Egypt, stands out.

His PhD dissertation about "Sexuality in Ancient Egypt. A lexical and cultural study" was highlighted in one of the interviews conducted by Dr. José Lull for the 2015 edition of the Egyptology course offered by Barcelona's Autonomous University through the online platform Coursera.

In an interview with EL UNIVERSAL, Dr. Orriols explained that the cult of Hathor, an ancient Egyptian goddess of love, motherhood, fertility, dance and music, included deflowering girls with votive phalluses.

How did you arrive to this conclusion?

Many authors, following the words of Strabo, say that when girls reached puberty, they were ablated as an initiation ritual. Other texts from Greco-Roman times refer to this practice during this period, but there is no textual or iconographic evidence that shows that the clitoris was actually removed before this time. In the case of boys their rite of passage into puberty was circumcision. A text of the New Kingdom states that two deities were in charge of "circumcising gods and deflowering girls", so from this it is understood that girls were subjected to deflowering as a rite of passage. In another text from the same period the myth of Seth and Anat states that he deflowered her with a "chisel". Moreover, ethnographic comparison shows that some African peoples as the lenge still subject girls to a complex initiation ritual when they reach puberty that includes deflowering them with a horn. So, something similar could have happened in ancient Egypt.

Hundreds of wooden phalluses offered to Hathor, a goddess related to sexuality among other attributes, have been found at Deir el-Bahari. Some of them have traces of red paint, which for me represents the blood from the rupture of the hymen. Thus, these phalluses were used to deflower girls and were offered to the goddess to facilitate pregnancy.

Was there any another fertility ritual in ancient Egypt?

There were many rituals for women's fertility but we have little information about them. Egyptian texts tell us that one of the most important things in life was having a family, because children took care of parents when they got old and, what is more important, they performed the mortuary ritual once they passed away. This shows that fertility was essential and, thus, it was necessary to promote it.

Also mother goddesses like Isis and Hathor were worshiped in ancient Egypt, and evidently these female deities were related to fertility, both of the earth and of women. A clear example is found in a cave located at the tip of the Valley of the Queens. From the outside the cave looks like a giant vagina, in fact it could represent Hathor's vagina because it represented the Theban mountain. Objects related with the goddess were found inside the cave, as well as a series of dams that formed wells. While the cave was being excavated it started to rain, and archaeologists had the chance to see in situ that all the water that fell on top of the mountain trickled down and ended up in the wells. Once they got filled, water flooded the Valley of the Queens, including graves. This could well be a regenerational ritual, and the water coming from "Hathor's vagina" could represent a revitalizing component for the dead in the valley. In turn, various texts found in the area talk about an initiation ritual throughout the Theban mountain. The cave would be the last door crossed by the neophyte, at which time he would be borne by Hathor as a new being.

What role did women play in worshipping gods in ancient Egypt?

It is unusual to find priestesses until quite late periods; there is a clear male dominance in this area. However since the Old Kingdom there were women who acted as priestesses of Hathor, and to a lesser extent of goddess Neith. It seems that women could be priestesses of goddesses, but not of gods. However during the New Kingdom everything changed, and we find priestesses of the god Amun.

In which rituals or cults of ancient Egypt was female dance present?

Surely in all. Every ritual involves passing from the profane to the sacred sphere. In most cultures this trance was achieved through music, usually repetitive, and dance. In ancient Egypt the funerary ritual included muu dances, while certain scenes that depicted the male puberty ritual include dancers with rattles. Music and dance show the presence of divinity and give the ritual its sacred character.

What role did sex play in the myths of ancient Egypt?

Sex is commonly found in the sacred texts of ancient Egypt. For example, they believed that the sun god Atum created the cosmos through masturbation. Interestingly, in the Old Kingdom he was believed to be an androgynous deity, able of creating the world without a partner. However, starting in the First Intermediate Period he was believed to represent the male role, while his hand represented a female deity: Djeretef. So basically Atum went from masturbating to copulating with his hand. During the Middle Kingdom the god was believed to copulate with his hand, but his sperm ended up in his mouth, that acted as a symbolic uterus and gave birth to his two children: Shu, "the air "and Tefnut, "humidity".

Sex also plays an important role in the myth of Isis and Osiris. As it is well known Osiris was killed by his brother Seth. So Isis, in the form of a kite, sat on Osiris and went on to have intercourse with him. In this case copulation had two functions: on one hand, Osiris was reborn and became the god of the funerary world, and on the other, Isis got pregnant with Horus, the god-king of the living.

How many words did ancient Egyptian language have to refer to the sexual act?

Sacred texts refer to sexuality explicitly, while profane texts refer to it though metaphors or euphemisms, never explicitly. In the case of “to copulate" I have documented 15 different ways of saying it. In addition, I have also documented a term that refers to masturbation and two to oral sex.

What do we known about the sexuality of Pharaohs?

The truth is we do not know anything about the private life of Egyptian kings. Almost all texts related to Pharaohs are very archetypal so, first of all they are not personal, and secondly most of them are rather mythological. What we do know is that they could have more than one partner: a main wife and other secondary wives, unlike the rest of the population that was monogamous.

How common was homosexuality or bisexuality?

Obviously homosexuality existed, but it was frowned upon. In fact there are no texts that speak about it specifically; however we do have texts referring to homosexual practices. As I said earlier, having children was important in ancient Egypt, and homosexuality is sterile. Furthermore, the Book of Coming Forth by Day (Book of the dead) states that the deceased should deny before the court of Osiris having sex with a sodomized.

A passage of the Contendings of Horus and Seth makes reference to this: the latter sodomized Horus and claimed before the Ennead the throne of Egypt. It is interesting that being the passive part, the sodomized, was reprehensible but being the active part was not. The reaction of the Ennead is to insult Horus and spit on him. I think this reflects very well what Egyptians though about being sodomized.

In paintings found in tombs like Djeserkaraseneb and Nebamun at Thebes or Nakht at Sheik Abd el Qurna there are paintings with naked women playing instruments or dancing. Why do you think these characters are nude?

In Egypt's iconography nudity is mostly symbolic, not real. When characters appear nude or semi-nude on reliefs this means they had a low social status. Farmers, fishermen, thieves, enemies, etc. were usually represented nude or semi-nude. Interestingly, especially during the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom, children, even royals, were always represented naked. Ancient Egyptians considered boys and girls pre-social beings, not Egyptians, that is why symbolically they were depicted naked.

Was there any relation between sex and music in ancient Egypt?

There does seem to be a close relation between music and sexuality. There are many images in which musical instruments appear related to sex. Perhaps the clearest example is the Turin papyrus No. 55001, that shows different characters having sex surrounded by musical instruments. Many authors relate these images to prostitution. It may be the case, but I think this should be further studied because, in my opinion, the investigations conducted until now are too superficial.

Where have you published your work?

All my works have been presented in lectures or published in specialized journals, both national and international, but I plan to publish part of my doctoral thesis in the near future.

What research are you currently working on?

I am studying the practice of Egyptian warriors to sodomize enemies. Certain terms show that sodomizing the defeated enemy as an act of humiliation was a fairly common practice in ancient Egypt, and it continues to exist in Africa. This work will be included as a chapter in a book about war in antiquity, a collection of articles of various researchers from different periods that will be published by Barcelona's Autonomous University. 

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