Sex, Belly Dance and the Afterlife
by Yasmin Henkesh
posted September 17, 2009
Who saw the History Channel program last month about the “hidden Egyptian sex papyrus?” Apparently, a lot of people. Sex in the Ancient World is a hot topic for the channel. The series is a hit, R rating and all. This particular episode focused on a little discussed and badly disintegrating papyrus owned by an Italian museum. The artwork in question, the “Forbidden Papyrus of Turin,” is along the lines of the Kama Sutra – except that it was created 1800 years before India’s definitive sex manual.
Participating in the program was Lise Manniche, a well-known archeologist and specialist in the field of plants, perfumes, sex and musical instruments of the ancient Egyptians. She has written four widely published books on these subjects and is highly respected, even by Zahi Hawwas, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. Given the explosive nature of the subject matter, the channel was wise to bring in such a distinguished talking head.
The “secret” scroll was found at the beginning of the 19th century in the ancient workers quarters of Deir al-Medina, across the Nile from Luxor. It dates from the New Kingdom, probably the reign of Ramsses II (1278 BC to 1213 BC). But once discovered, the papyrus was quietly hidden away for over 150 years – because its Playboy-like erotic illustrations offended Victorian sensibilities.
With a deft hand, the original artist had sketched Hathorian musicians, in 12 different positions, fornicating with hairy, and often old, men. Perhaps these customers were disreputable priests of Amun, or even the old pharaoh himself. No one is quite sure. The women,on the other hand, appear bored. Some have a lyre and sistrum. Others make fun of the performance issues of their partners. All wear a wig, elaborate jewelry and a dancer’s belt. None wear clothes.
The History Channel program implied that these women could have been ancient belly dancers. After all, their mistress, Hathor, was the goddess of both music and dance. She was also the Lady of the Vulva and the Lady of Drunkenness. She was the Celestial Cow, the Golden One and the Mistress of Life, Love and Death. Her adepts trained in the art of stimulating the life force of creation. To them, sexual arousal was a matter of life or death, literally. Ancient Egyptians firmly believed that without a strong desire to procreate, i.e. sexual energy, the dead would not be reborn into the next plane of existence. Since the ultimate goal of the gods, pharaoh and later, anyone who could afford a proper burial, was life after death, and the only way to get there was to excite their regenerative forces, the priestesses’ movements had to inspire desire.
To these people, sex was not dirty, shameful, frightening or forbidden. It was a natural part of daily life and the essential prerequisite for birth – on earth or in the Afterlife.
Hence, banquet scenes on tomb walls included coded details of sexual behavior. By the New Kingdom (and Moses’ departure from depraved pharaonic society) images of diaphanous linen gowns, perfume cones, blue lotus flowers with their mind-altering scent, music, alcohol, and erotic gestures occupied a place of honor inside a deceased’s final resting place. These earthly pleasures were to re-ignite the departed soul’s fire of desire, with the help of Heka, or magic. Heka brought the pictures to life – for eternity. The jiggling clay rattles or shells on the perennial dancers’ belts (no, they were not referring to coin hip scarves in the program) supplemented the sounds of sistra, tambourines, clappers and finger snapping to keep
away malevolent spirits during this precarious time of transition.
Dancers and musicians played an important role during pharaonic festivities honoring the dead, in the same way they are called on today to awaken the life force of newly-weds. Before conservatism replaced ancient customs, the modern belly dancer would move between the new couple, take a hand from each and place them on her womb as a fertility gesture. Hathorian priestesses once embodied the goddess’ attributes of love, music, dance, family, childbirth and rebirth after death. Today her adepts are few and far between. Paganism has been replaced by monotheistic righteousness. Public sexuality is now taboo.
It is true that not all ancient dances were meant to arouse the senses. As archeological evidence proves, there were many types; all-male war dances, the Muu Ancester dance, paired and troupe acrobatic performances (complete with choreography), dwarf numbers, funeral dirges and religious processions.
But the performances I am referring to, and those that most resemble present day belly dancers, are the solo improvisations done by one or two young women, sometimes playing an instrument, sometimes not.
They appear in New Kingdom art as wearing only jewelry and a belt. Sometimes these women are labeled as slaves; sometimes they have a tattoo of the household god Bes on their upper thigh. More often than not they are shown with an object that links them to Hathor; a sistrum, a menat collar, a musical instrument or alcohol. They were after all servants to the Lady of Drunkenness, and it was their role to help guests enter an altered state of consciousness, through alcohol, musical ecstasy and/or incense-induced trance.
I read a while back on a belly dance chat-board, during one of many heated discussions on sexuality – or lack thereof – in the dance, that one skeptic questioned the dance’s erotic roots.
“I question what they say. And I’d question that as the dance’s root. If you go farther back, you see less "sexuality", and much more like the social dance aspects of raqs, people getting together and having fun dancing. I think that’s more likely the root of our dance form than the public performances…”
With programs such as the History Channel’s Ancient Sex series and regular new archeological discoveries, it is time to re-examine our beliefs (andfantasies) about the origins of our art form. It is time to accept the facts – that belly dance’s precursor was designed to stimulate and reawaken vital reproductive forces, during life or after death. It was meant to open the senses of the dead and increase the blood flow of the living. What is shameful about that?
The program will be available for purchase on DVD in October 2009 here: The A&E Shop
Turin papyrus link: http://www.geocities.com/zoser8/turin.html
Ruth Schumann Antelm, Les Secrets d�Hathor / Sacred Sexuality in Ancient Egypt, 1999 Editions du Rocher, Paris.
Lise Manniche, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt, 1987, KPI London
" Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt, 1991, British Museum Press, London
Hans Hickman, Catalogue des Instruments de Musique au Musee de Caire, 1949, Cairo
Curt Sachs, The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, 1943, W Norton, NYC
" , World History of the Dance, 1937, WW Norton, NYC
Sir Gardiner Wilkinson, The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, 1837-41, London
Irena Lexova, Ancient Egyptian Dances, 1935, reprint 1999 Dover Publications
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