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Sex, Belly Dance and the Afterlife

Ancient porn customer

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.

HathorThe 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.

ancient dancersDancers 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:

Further reading:
  1. Ruth Schumann Antelm, Les Secrets d�Hathor / Sacred Sexuality in Ancient Egypt, 1999 Editions du Rocher, Paris.
  2. Lise Manniche, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt, 1987, KPI London
  3. " Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt, 1991, British Museum Press, London
  4. Hans Hickman, Catalogue des Instruments de Musique au Musee de Caire, 1949, Cairo
  5. Curt Sachs, The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, 1943, W Norton, NYC
  6. " , World History of the Dance, 1937, WW Norton, NYC
  7. Sir Gardiner Wilkinson, The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, 1837-41, London
  8. Irena Lexova, Ancient Egyptian Dances, 1935, reprint 1999 Dover Publications

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  1. DinaNo Gravatar

    Sep 18, 2009 - 01:09:02

    I do not see a clear link established between two-dimensional depictions of dancers/servants of Goddesses/priestesses and oriental dance today.

    Much in contrast to this, the link between century old Arab folklore and today’s “bellydance” is well established, by Badia Masabny’s own words and everyone can see and observe how women dance in Arab and some other Oriental tribal cultures. For example, my Kurdish grandmother in law tells of dances as a child that sound pretty much like many bellydance elements, and there had been no tv in her village when she was a child (so no distortion of the locals dance by tv).
    These are confirmed accounts on the fact locals dance very much the elements you can find in bellydance today, less spiced up and glamorized of course.
    So here you got a connection with real people and their folklore – and bellydance.

    I don’t see anything concrete in the affirmations regarding these papyrus depictions. They remind me a lot of depictions of Venus’ or Aphrodites’ following. You can find little dressed temple prostitutes in India to this day meaning to arouse life spirits and bless fertility. None of them is claimed to be close to Arab culture and dance. Most likely the Ancient Egyptian temple “entertainers” have more in common with their Roman or Greek counterparts than with recent Arab culture, not only religion wise, but bare in mind they do not even share the language with Arabs, who spread from the Gulf later.

    Now I find the connection between Ancient Egyptian temple entertainers or prostitutes to recent Arab folklore quite forced, and I find it detrimental. Bellydance is not prostitution, yet it suffers this terrible societal stigma. Why enhance it with little backed claims like this of Ancient Egyptian temple prostitutes whose music we cannot hear, and whose dance we cannot observe?
    If you ask why it offends.. puritanism. You are right on that. Societies have developed a lot within millenia sometimes to the better, sometimes to the worse. You are most likely aware of Ancient Greeks tolerance and liking of male homosexuality. Yet linking today’s Greek folklore to homosexual happenings based on a few two-dimensional drawings will most likely offend the hell out of many Greeks.
    Ancient societies’ cannot be perceived out of context; they are much better compared to each other than with today’s local cultures. IN the case of Ancient Egyptian they do not even share the language, and most likely not the musical culture (which we can only speculate on of course).
    The local cultures are today ages away from the ones from Antiquity – millenia, actually, that cannot be wiped away in an instant.

  2. DinaNo Gravatar

    Sep 18, 2009 - 01:09:23

    P.s. I had to write that comment a second time.. the first time I got a notice “we are not big on spam here”.
    Maybe you can fix the problem – i felt like crying out loud when my initial comment (equally long, probably similar in wording) got deleted 🙂

  3. LeyaliNo Gravatar

    Sep 18, 2009 - 12:09:03

    Hi Dina,

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I would be interested in your responses to/sources for the following questions I had after reading them.

    1) How do “century-old” folklore and personal 20th century anecdotes relate to evidence of ancient Egyptian culture? Where do you believe culture that is “century-old” emerged from?

    2) You use the term “prostitute” and “entertainer” for these temple women interchangeably. Why? In particular, prostitution involves the sale of sexual services. I did not find the sale of, nor sexual services discussed in the article in any way.

    3) You state “Ancient societies’ cannot be perceived out of context; they are much better compared to each other than with today’s local cultures. ” How would it be worthwhile to compare, for example, ancient Egyptian society with ancient Indian society in attempting to determine the origins of what we loosely term “bellydance”? Also, I do not believe the article was comparing ancient Egyptian dance forms to modern bellydance; rather, the article seeks to further the proposal that one contributed toward the evolution of the other.

    3) I would be interested in your factual evidence showing how ancient Egyptian temple women have more in common with their Roman or Greek counterparts than Arab culture.

    4) I am also interested in your sources demonstrating that ancient Egyptian culture is unrelated to today’s middle eastern musical culture. Local cultures are indeed ages away from those in Antiquity, but they are hardly created from or exist in a vacuum.

    I am no authority on the subject matter of the article and your response. And I think you state it best when you said these theories can only be “speculate[d] on.” But I applaud those who engage in factual research to develop and support their theories (and yes, their criticisms). Thanks.

    Yours in dance,
    Leyali 🙂

  4. LeyaliNo Gravatar

    Sep 18, 2009 - 12:09:45

    I also had to write my comment on this site twice (and of course misnumbered my points the second time around). Odd.

  5. Lynette HarrisNo Gravatar

    Sep 18, 2009 - 02:09:05

    SSSSSecond tesssssting

  6. Lynette HarrisNo Gravatar

    Sep 18, 2009 - 02:09:41

    hmmm… letsssss tessst it a third time…

  7. adminNo Gravatar

    Sep 18, 2009 - 02:09:38

    Lets try this again. All I did was change the challenge question and answers. Let see if this resets this gizmo….
    Oh, if you like this article- wait till you read Andrea Deagon’s coming up soon!

  8. shadagirlNo Gravatar

    Sep 18, 2009 - 03:09:50

    Fascinating – interested to see this program – if anyone has a link to a schedule of forthcoming broadcasts please post!

  9. Andrea DeagonNo Gravatar

    Sep 19, 2009 - 08:09:30

    I see a lot of misrepresentations here.  (1) Scenes on tomb walls, set in the afterlife, are NOT scenes of real life.  They are imaginary.  The dancers and musicians there cannot be assumed to be real dancers and musicians, let alone priestesses.  (2) No one really knows the purposes of the Turin erotic papyrus, and it sounds as though the TV program has assigned it a pretty simplistic meaning.  (3) All evidence is that priestesses in Egypt were typically upper class women who went through extensive musical training to hold positions of authority; other musicians/dancers in temples were professionals “on retainer” for regular performance duties.  Sex priestesses?  I don’t think so.  (4) Dancers with Bes tattoos: the Bes tattoos could have many meanings — one scholar has proposed, for example, protection from venereal disease for them as sex professionals.  Bes has a lot of different meanings and functions for a lot of different categories of people.  hard to say which one he played in any given circumstance.  (5) Did the Egyptians know how to party?  Yes.  Did they have naked Hathor priestesses to help them do it?  Show me the job title and I’ll believe it.  (6) The fact that the Egyptians had symbolic meanings for sex and nudity in rebirth and the afterlif edoesn’t mean that they were totally into sex and nudity in any old situation.  They were perfectly capable of being shocked and put off by it when it occurred in the many places where it would be inappropriate in real life.  And they were much more tolerant of it in art than  in real life, just as we are.  (7)  TV shows often sensationalize.

  10. EnisaNo Gravatar

    Sep 20, 2009 - 06:09:55

    Why it’s impossible to post a comment here?

  11. EnisaNo Gravatar

    Sep 20, 2009 - 06:09:11

    Since that one worked I’ll try posting my original comment:

    Interesting article and makes some good points, but I do have some questions and thoughts.

    1) Can we really reconstruct dances from paintings (and sculpture for that matter)? Dance involves movement (that is 3-dimensional and exists in time), performance space, social context and interactions with musicians/audience/other dancers. A lot of that is lost in the static visual depictions.
    2) How much is the way we interpret the paintings influenced by our own societies and world-view? The Victorian scholars, and also Lexova in the early 1900s, refused to see in the ancient paintings anything that resembles the “lewd performances of modern Egypt”, perhaps due their own moral biases. But, do we see “ancient belly dancers” everywhere, from Egyptian tomb paintings to prehistoric cave carvings in Europe, because belly dance happens to be trendy right now?
    3) Professional dance often is based in folk/popular and social dances (classical ballet would be just one example). On the other hand, the aesthetics created by the pros influences back the popular dances. Why this argument folk vs professional origins in case of belly dance?
    4) Why is folk automatically perceived as non-sexual and professional as sexual?
    5) Why sexuality in dance is usually understood to mean “being seductive”, when it can appear also as vitality, charisma, etc?

  12. Lynette HarrisNo Gravatar

    Sep 20, 2009 - 04:09:00

    Is  it still taking 2 attempts to get a comment posted? If anyone is still having problems with this, please let me know! Included any diagnostic details you think might help. Thanksssss!

  13. Yasmin HenkeshNo Gravatar

    Sep 20, 2009 - 10:09:33

    The TV program makes clear that the Turin papyrus was not an official document, but a satire, done probably by one of the tomb artists working in the Valley of the Kings and living in the worker community associated with it.

    The artist appeared dissatisfied with life as it was, perhaps because he lived at the end of Ramesses II’s reign and things had been the same for 80 years (Ramesses II died at the age of 90 something). He was depicting life as he perceived it, not the official, condoned state version. He saw the adepts of Hathor as women engaging in sex. These women were shown with sistrum and a lyre or two. To archeologists the belt the women wore and their lack of clothes also indicated their Hathorian association. The adepts of Hathor have been associated with hip-jiggling dances since pre-dynastic times (the dance-jewelry found with them in their tombs – for the hips, the raised arm dances imitating horned cattle that were passed down). It was these facts the program was referring to, but I did not mention in the article. There are other facts I did not mention because I have not finished the research yet. But I will say that all of this came about because I was researching the origins of finger cymbals. Their predecessors, clappers, were the ultimate Hathorian object, along with sistra – used for dance and believed to be a powerful sexual object – the Hand of God.

    But I have to finish the research first. After that I will have even more sources to site. But I am very happy to have started this discussion. I would like to add that I believe Egyptian culture today reflects a great deal of its pharaonic roots, perhaps more so than the cultures that conquored it later. The pharaohs ruled Egypt off and on for almost 3000 years. The followers of Islam have been there only since about 670 AD – 1400 years. Just a thought.

  14. Woodrow "asim" Jarvis HillNo Gravatar

    Sep 21, 2009 - 07:09:18

    RE: Reconstructing dance from images.
    There are many, many reasons to distrust claims regarding reproductions of dance, esp. this normally-improvised form, solely from period images. rather than drag on about them, I strongly suggest anyone who is interested in the topic pick up Dr. Anthony Shay’s work Choreophobia, where he talks about such issues, focused on European Renaissance-era Persian Dance, in some detail.
    As someone currently working on reproductions on Ottoman dance from roughly that same era, I can personally attest to the challenges around accurate re-creation of dances we don’t have solid information on. Much of what I have to do is underline what it “solid”, based on fact, and what is “conjecture”, based upon mere guesswork.

    It is true that some styles of dance in that above period I research were erotically changed. Yet they were different from, say, modern strip clubs — much more active, with moves that used space in the room, enticing via athleticism, if you will. And I wonder, as I read an article with no information on exactly what movement vocabulary these Egyptians utilized — how do we know it’s the same, or a similar, dance as what we do today? What moves does the writer discern from these images, and what is her process for understanding said moves? how can she make said conclusions when anyone who’s seen images of dancers knows that the costumes tell us as much, and oftentimes clue us into, the dance — and that paintings are often symbolically-charged, as well?

    These are the questions that leap to my mind, when I read this article.

  15. Andrea DeagonNo Gravatar

    Sep 21, 2009 - 09:09:21

    I don’t mean to be argumentative, but again, I think many of the connections implied by this show are very “soft” so to speak.  (1) Sistra are associated with lots of other deities than Hathor.  There is also evidence that they were used by ordinary women in other circumstances, maybe ritual, but maybe not.  (2) Hip belts were worn as a common item of clothing, and over dresses not just by themselves, by women of all sorts in many periods.  Not only associated with Hathor.  (3)  Gestures like raising your arms in dance are way too common to be associated with a single goddess like Hathor.  (4) The vocabulary that is specifically associated with Hathoric dance refers to leaping, and dances that are specifically shown as dedicated to Hathor show leg movement.  (5) There is not a word in the Egyptian dance vocabulary that is definitely associated with hip movement — maybe ksks, but not everyone agrees on that.  
    Here’s what I do think.  Yes, Hathor was the goddess of dancing, music, drinking, and having fun in general — in addition to several very significant political functions in the Old Kingdom at least.  Yes,  people invoked her at parties, and probably did a lot of informal celebratory dancing over which they might have felt she presided.  I am convinced, for reasons I will explain in an article later, that some of that was probably pretty close to what we would consider “belly dancing.” 
    But all of that is miles away from belly dancing Hathor sex priestesses, for which there is no evidence in any of the extensive temple records and literary and written evidence of dance and temple personnel. 
    To my way of thinking, the naked women with musical instruments on the Turin papyrus  look like sex professionals who are also entertainers, and if there is a sistrum lying around, there are many, many ways of explaining that other than assuming that the artist is accurately depicting a group of naked prostitute priestesses because we happen to know that priestesses use sistrums.
    It is natural for us to want transcendent roles for belly dance but I think this show has not been careful about the limitations about where you can realistically put them in ancient Egypt.  Yes it is way cool that Hathor is a goddess of sex and rebirth and dance and all, and yes it is way cool that naked dance and sex are images of afterlife rebirth, but none of that translates into real world belly dancers being priestesses or being thought of as creating the circumstances for rebirth, though I would bet that they and everyone else thought they were particularly appropriate in celebrating Hathoric events like births and big parties.

  16. Yasmin HenkeshNo Gravatar

    Sep 21, 2009 - 01:09:03

    Andrea, I can’t wait to read your article and pour through your sources. I am sure I will enjoy it. Perhaps we should continue this discussion after you post it?

  17. KNo Gravatar

    Sep 21, 2009 - 01:09:07

    I would like to add that I believe Egyptian culture today reflects a great deal of its pharaonic roots, perhaps more so than the cultures that conquored it later. The pharaohs ruled Egypt off and on for almost 3000 years. The followers of Islam have been there only since about 670 AD – 1400 years. Just a thought.

    Nice thought, but I have to ask you for examples. I think it’s pretty easy to see the heavy influence of Islam on Egyptian culture since Egypt is not the only Muslim majority country in the world. <–I don’t know if I worded that sentence in a coherent way.  What exactly do you think is pharaonic about Egyptian culture today?

  18. CandideNo Gravatar

    Oct 11, 2009 - 09:10:58

    Layali: Ancient Egypt had quite a lot in common with other ancient societies, particularly Greece and Rome.  Remember, for example, that Cleopatra was Greek, and came from a long line of Greek rulers.  Trade routes and imperial power struggles meant that there was quite a lot of mingling in mediterranean antiquity.  Furthermore, if you read Dina’s post carefully, you’ll see that she specifically said that Indian priestesses and dancers do NOT relate to contemporary belly dance, despite superficial similarities.  Similarly, she pointed out that in rural Kurdish societies we can actually *see* dance movements very similar to modern Egyptian raqs sharqi, and that these obviously do not stem from Egyptian temple dances.
    I would add that there are many more dances from around the world that involve moving the hips– for instance, hula; yet this does not mean that they are related to contemporary oriental dance.  Therefore, we would require more evidence of a direct connection or evolution between dance A and dance B, and geographic proximity thousands of years apart isn’t enough.

    Aside from the problem of the intention of the document and its reliability (is it depicting fantasy? is it parody?) there is also, as has been mentioned, a problem with reconstructing dance movement through a 2-d, static medium.  I would add that ancient Egyptian art is obviously not strictly representational, which adds to this difficulty.  Could they be related? Certainly.  Is this one papyrus proof that they are? Hardly.

    As an anthropologist and folklorist myself, I would also like to point out that the historical origins of material or social culture are only one aspect of what that piece of culture means in contemporary society.  Societies assign meaning to aspects of their culture which is timely to them and reflects how they live today, what it means to be a member of their society.  So, while this papyrus may indicate a link between ancient erotic dancing and contemporary Egyptian raqs sharqi– and the idea is certainly intriguing and should be researched more by dance ethnologists and historians– this does not essentially mean that it is erotic and sexual now.

    An example from our own culture would be a bride wearing white at her wedding, to symbolize virginity.  These days, fewer and fewer American brides are virgins, yet white is still the color of choice, even for second weddings.  Even acknowledging the tradition’s roots with Queen Victoria’s wedding (where it began as a matter of fashion and not a declaration of virginity, which would have been understood) , does this mean that when we see a bride in white we would be shocked to find that she is not a virgin? Of course not.  The meaning of a white dress is not rigid, even after a mere one and a half centuries after the fact.  Raqs sharqi, in contrast to a white wedding gown, is much older, and is a blend of many different influences spanning across a body of closely-related cultures.  Even if it could be said to have its roots here, can we honestly say that it has only one point of origin, and one static meaning?

  19. Gravatar

    May 27, 2013 - 01:05:33

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