When an Egyptian nobleman went hunting, he took the whole family along. The gentleman in our jacket illustration is Nebamon, an official of the Eighteenth Dynasty; his little girl squats at his feet and his wife, beautifully and inappropriately dressed, stands behind him, in a pose which looks as if it would cause the light papyrus skiff to tip over. Nebamon has draped some of the lotus flowers his child is picking over one shoulder; one can almost hear the high, childish voice insisting. “They look pretty there, Daddy!” In one hand he holds the live ducks which act as decoys, and in the other he wields a throw stick shaped like a serpent. Even the family cat is there, grabbing a duck as it takes wing in a futile attempt to escape. Under the boat the fish swim placidly along in a line, and to the left we see the tall reeds and flowers of the swamp.
This is a very popular scene in tombs of the Old Kingdom. Another nobleman named Menna had three children, two girls and a boy, and the entire family—wife, boy, and girls—accompanied their father on the expedition.
Egyptian fathers may have preferred sons for practical reasons; only a boy could play the part of Horus, the dutiful son, when the sad hour of making offerings to his deceased father came around. But there is no reason to suppose that men were not equally fond of their daughters. To take little girls along on a duck-hunting trip is a sign of affection which few modern fathers would be willing to emulate.
I should add that some scholars interpret scenes like these as having a purely ritual function; they are artistic fictions, and almost every element of the painting has some mystical significance or other. Certain details almost certainly are imaginary; it’s unlikely that anyone in any era would go hunting in such impractical garments, but it seems to me to be going a bit overboard to suggest that hunting scenes have no basis in reality. Men liked to hunt for plea sure. They still do.
If one may judge him by the reliefs that have survived, Akhenaton, the heretic pharaoh, was one of the most affectionate fathers in ancient Egypt. He may or may not have had sons; they may or may not have been born of his beautiful wife Nefertiti. There is no doubt of the parentage of his six daughters. “King’s daughter, of his body, born of the Great Royal Wife,” they are called. I can’t help suspecting that they were rather spoiled. Wherever he went, they went too—to the temple to worship Aton, to state banquets, to ceremonies honoring virtuous officials. When Akhenaton and Nefertiti drove out in their chariot, the girls came along in their own chariots, or in that of their parents. In one such scene, we observe that Akhenaton has turned to give his pretty wife an affectionate kiss, and one of the girls, riding with them in their chariot, takes advantage of her parents’ distraction to stir up the horses with a stick. (I cannot imagine what the symbolic significance of that gesture might be, but some Egyptologist may yet come up with one.) Akhenaton lost one of his daughters when she was still quite young. On the walls of the royal tomb where the child was buried, he had himself depicted in attitudes of frenzied mourning which no other king employed.
Another extremely successful royal father—if one measures success in terms of quantity—was Ramses II. He is reputed to have had more than one hundred children. Rows of them, male and female, march along the walls of many of his temples. This was an unusual gesture, since as a rule royal children, especially sons, were not shown during the lifetime of their father. One cannot help but suspect, however, that Ramses was motivated not so much by paternal affection as by macho conceit. (That is a subjective statement, which the informed reader should ignore.)
The formal attitudes to which Egyptian art was usually restricted do not often allow intimate family scenes. We know, however, that family life was close and warm. Among the most honorable epithets a man could claim when he inscribed his dignities on his tomb stela was the one we have chosen as the title of this chapter: beloved by his mother and father.
Children led a fairly carefree existence when they were small. What did they play with? Sticks and stones and mud, and bits of broken pottery probably, as modern children did before television and merchandising turned them into brainwashed consumers. Some ancient toys have survived—tops, miniature weapons, and several elaborate mechanical toys. One of these has a row of little dancing dwarfs on a platform; they are made to jog up and down by pulling a string. An expensive toy, this one, for some nobleman’s son—who probably left it lying in the dust after five minutes and went back to his mud pies. Another mechanical toy was a cat. A string made the jaws move up and down.
You can find Egyptian dolls in many museum collections, but they may not have been children’s toys. Some obviously are not; they are little naked female figures which were once called “magical concubines” but which are now considered to be symbols of regeneration and rebirth. Other dolls are very crude, just paddle-shaped chunks of wood with roughly painted features and a mop of clay curls. Since these have also been found in tombs, they may have had magical significance. But one suspects that female children would demand a “baby” to play with, and Egyptian girls may have played with these unprepossessing specimens what ever their original purpose.
Swimming must have been a popular sport for children. The houses of wealthy nobles boasted garden pools, and the villagers had the Nile or a handy canal. The youngsters played ball; the object they used was similar to a modern baseball, made of hide stitched together and stuffed. Races and wrestling matches were popular with the boys, dancing and playing house with the girls. Some games are shown in the tomb reliefs; one is played by four children, two mounted on the backs of two others, with a ball flying back and forth between the two riders. The point of this game is not hard to discover; it looks like fun too, for the young and agile. In another game, one boy stands in the center with four or five others hanging on to his arms and forming a circle. This one is called “Going Around Four Times,” but we do not know its rules.
HOUSE HOLD PETS
Egypt was probably the original home of Felis catus, the domesticated cat. The wild variety from which our alley cats (excuse me, “domestic shorthairs”) ultimately derive is Felis sylvestris lybica, the African wildcat, basically sand-colored with tabbylike stripes. The Egyptians discovered the usefulness of this delightful creature at an early stage, perhaps in connection with their cultivation of grain. Wherever there are granaries there will be rodents, and no man-made mousetrap is as effective as a cooperative cat. With the subtle presumption of the breed, Egyptian cats soon made their way out of the granary and into the house, ending up in a favorite feline position under their owner’s chair.
A popular Egyptian goddess, Bastet, was cat-headed, which is in itself no sign of distinction, since many animal species were connected with one divinity or another. Not all cats were sacred animals, but there were sacred cats at Bubastis, where Bastet had her principal shrine. Mummified cats have been found in large numbers; I regret to say that the majority appear to have been deliberately done in, presumably as an offering to the goddess in question. (Don’t ask me to explain the logic of this.)
A cat under its owner’s chair
The beauty of the cat’s graceful body must have appealed to Egyptian sculptors because there are a lot of cat figurines, ranging in size from little ones which could be worn as amulets up to nearly full-size statues. In the latter the curves of the back and flanks and the proud pointed face are beautifully modeled. In all the representations we have, the cat in question looks sleek and well tended.
Certainly some cats were beloved house hold pets. They are shown in a number of tomb reliefs; those that depict them retrieving birds for their owner must be wishful thinking, since cats are not easily trained. In other paintings the cat isn’t even pretending to be useful. Wearing an elegant gold collar and perhaps an earring, it hangs around the dining tables. One of my favorite scenes shows the mother cat under the chair of the tomb owner’s wife, glaring full-face at the beholder—an unusual feature, since people and animals are almost always shown in profile. On the knee of the husband, Ipuy, sits a kitten which is apparently clawing at the sleeve of his elegant pleated robe. Once again I should point out that some scholars believe the cats have a purely ritual significance. The cat goddess Bastet was related to Hathor, goddess of love and beauty, and cats are more often associated with women than with men. But I’d like to have someone explain the ritual significance of the spoiled kitten. It seems simpler to me to assume that Ipuy just liked cats.
A hunting cat
Then there is the handsome sarcophagus of the cat who belonged to Prince Thutmose, son of the magnificent Amenhotep III, and high priest of Ptah at Memphis. Her name was Ta-miut, the Female Cat, or as we might say, Miss Kitty. Thutmose may not have been good at picking original names, but he certainly loved his cat. On the long sides of the little stone box Miss Kitty is shown sitting in front of a table heaped with offerings, and the text refers to her as the “Osiris Ta-miut, true of voice before the Great God.” This is a unique and astonishing object—a deliberate imitation of the mortuary texts and scenes used for human beings, giving the cat the same promise of immortality.
One can’t help wondering what the priests of Ptah thought of it. Was Prince Thutmose attempting to start a cult of the cat, like that of the sacred Apis bulls, who were carefully tended in life and buried in magificent sarcophagi after they died? His father is believed to have begun the burials of the sacred bulls, but if Thutmose had something similar in mind, the idea never caught on.
If one were given to baseless speculation one might also wonder whether Thutmose was displaying the same contempt for the old gods and their traditions as did his brother Akhenaton. That would be going too far, even for me, but I must differ with the scholar who deduced that Thutmose must have died young, since no grown man would lavish such affection on a cat. (He is probably a dog person.) The sidelock shown in several representations of the prince does not, as in other cases, indicate youth. It was one of the designations of the High Priest of Ptah.
There is a formula for removing poison from a cat who has been stung by a scorpion. It comes from a very late text, but the formula is similar to medical prescriptions of all periods and, like most Egyptian medical prescriptions, it relies heavily on what we would call magic. “Oh, Re, come to your daughter,” it begins, “whom a scorpion has stung on a lonely road. Her cries reach heaven; harken on your way! She has used her mouth against it [sucked the wound] but lo, the poison is in her limbs.” Re says he will come to the cat’s aid, and then, to make sure, each part of the animal is placed under the protection of a particular god. “Oh cat, your head is the head of Re; oh cat, your nose is the nose of Thoth…” and so on. After this, there is the more practical recommendation that a tourniquet be applied.
We must mention that the Egyptian word for “cat” was spelled “miw.” How it was vocalized we may safely leave to the imagination of any cat-owning reader.
Dogs seem to have been domesticated early, in many parts of the world. By the time they make their appearance in Egyptian reliefs, there were already several breeds differentiated. One is a lanky, long-legged greyhound type, probably related to the saluki hounds of Africa, which are still used for hunting. Another looks something like a short-haired terrier, except for the peculiar blob on the end of its tail, which is not found in any known species and which may have been some Egyptian dog-lover’s idea of a pretty decoration. The most charming of the Egyptian dogs of my acquaintance is a little female with the bandy legs, sausage body, and long muzzle of a dachshund. The ears are different, however.
While dogs appear in numerous paintings and reliefs, as house pets and hunting companions, they were not a popular subject for sculpture. There may, or may not, be some relation to the fact that dogs were not sacred animals, like cats or baboons or crocodiles. It has been suggested that the god Anubis, who presided over mummification and led the soul of the deceased into the hall of judgment, had the head of a wild dog, not a jackal, as was once believed. Both animals hang around cemeteries. Anubis looks like a jackal to me, but some scholars use the word “canid-headed” just to be on the safe side. There are certainly plenty of statues of Anubis, including the one found in Tutankhamon’s tomb. It has also been suggested that the peculiar creature known as the “Set-animal” was a dog. It does look something like a greyhound, but there are confusing details. I think he’s a composite. Yes, he has a long muzzle, but just look at those ears—and that tail!
Modern dog-lovers claim that canines are more lovable than cats. The Egyptians also praised their dogs for faithfulness and obedience, but several inscriptions use the noun to suggest servility. One can’t imagine a conquered enemy telling the king, “We are your cats.”
Perhaps the most famous ancient dogs belonged to a budding pharaoh of pre–Middle Kingdom Thebes. His name was Wahankh, and on his tomb stela he had five dogs shown with him. Possibly he hoped, in this way, to insure their affectionate companionship in the next world. All the dogs had names written next to them; three have been translated as “the Gazelle,” “the Black One,” and “the Cook-pot” (?). The last one is questionable, but it is not hard to think of an explanation for it. Cooking pots are full of food, and this dog may have had a hearty appetite. One enterprising researcher compiled a list of approximately seventy names given to dogs—which was quite a distinction in ancient Egypt, since a name had magical significance.
There are some dog cemeteries, and we have a rather nice dog mummy—if one may use the word “nice” in this context. At the present time he resides in the Cairo Museum, but he was found in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Three such small tombs contained animals that may have been house hold pets of a single pharaoh—the dog, five monkeys, a baboon, three ducks, and one ibis.
Or maybe they had a ritual purpose.
Baboons and monkeys were extinct in Egypt by the New Kingdom. They were imported from Nubia and points south. Baboons may have had—right—a ritual significance, being sacred to the god Thoth, but some were certainly pets. One was mummified and buried in the coffin of her owner, the princess and god’s wife Maatkare. (Until a recent X-ray examination identified the small bundle as a female baboon, scholars assumed that it was the supposedly celibate lady’s baby and that she had died in childbirth. Honi soit qui mal y pense.)
There are a few pictures of monkeys squatting morosely under the master’s chair, in the position more commonly occupied by the family cat. A more cheerful picture shows several monkeys hand in hand with children. One of my favorite pet scenes has a cat, a goose, and a monkey. The monkey is swinging gaily from the rung of a chair; cat and goose are in a loving embrace, with the cat’s paw wrapped around the neck of the goose. The fowl seems to have doubts as to its friend’s intentions; its eye has a terrified glare and its feet are off the ground, as if it were trying to fly. I wish I could reproduce this scene, but some ancient vandal removed the cat’s head and spoiled the picture. Only the tips of the ears and the ends of the whiskers remain—enough, however, to clear the cat of the suspicion we might otherwise entertain, from the goose’s agitation, that her jaws are buried in her companion’s neck.
Many other animals were domesticated, but we cannot always say which ones were regarded as pets. Horses might be included in this select category; they were relatively rare beasts. Senenmut, the close friend of Queen Hatshepsut, had a little mare mummified and buried near his tomb. He may have been an animal-lover, since his pet ape was also buried nearby. The Nubian kings of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty were great horse fanciers. One unfortunate Egyptian prince, whose city was besieged and conquered by Piye (formerly known as Piankhi), the first of the Nubian dynasty, almost lost his head when the conqueror discovered that the horses in the princely stable had suffered from the long siege. Piye expressed himself as more distressed by the discomfort of the horses than by anything else—including, one presumes, the near-starvation of the citizens of the town and the death and mutilation of soldiers of both sides. I am an animal-lover myself, but I find this attitude somewhat exaggerated. It is not unique to ancient Egypt, however.
Perhaps these were the only animals that could actually be called pets; but I am sure that the children of ancient Egypt enjoyed playing with the other animals, especially the young ones. The Egyptians did not employ the camel; their beast of burden was the donkey. For food they raised goats and pigs and cattle of various kinds, including some wild varieties. Gazelles and ibexes were domesticated, and the young of these species must have appealed to the young humans. Baby ducks and geese would have had their admirers too. But there were no baby chicks; the domestic fowl was unknown in pharaonic Egypt, except as a rare and exotic import.
When they were very little, children didn’t have to bother with clothing. Considering the Egyptian climate and the habits of children, this was an admirable idea. Older children wore clothing like that of their parents, a kilt for boys, a simple linen dress for girls. The girls let their hair hang loose or braided it into pigtails, but boys had an unusual coiffure—the head was shaved except for one long lock on the side, which was braided.
The distinctive sidelock is known from the reliefs, and it was actually found on a mummy, that of a boy about eleven years old. He had not been circumcised. Circumcision seems to have been standard practice, but there are some odd exceptions, including at least two pharaohs. However, this boy was still young. There may have been a ceremony marking a boy’s coming of age, when the sidelock was ceremonially cut off and the act of circumcision performed. One text mentions a mass circumcision of 120 men and adds that none of them hit out or was hit, none scratched or was scratched! Such mass puberty rites are known in many cultures, and manly indifference to pain is expected of the initiates.
If there were corresponding ceremonies for girls we know nothing about them. Certainly there is no evidence of female circumcision, in the texts or on the mummies. Perhaps the onset of menstruation signaled a girl’s arrival at womanhood.
There is no proof that the cutting of the sidelock was part of the coming-of-age ritual, but it was one of the things that separated the men from the boys. The “sidelock of youth” is often mentioned in the texts, and men refer to the carefree days of boyhood as the time “before I had cut off the sidelock.”
After the ceremony the boy was no longer a boy, nor was he that modern artificiality, a teenager. He was a man, and ready for adult responsibilities. Until relatively recent times, and in most cultures, children entered into adulthood at an age which may seem scandalously young to us. They didn’t have any time to waste. Life was short and hazardous. In pharaonic Egypt the average life span was thirty to forty years. Some people, primarily kings, lived much longer. Pepi II, who came to the throne as a child, is said to have reigned for ninety-five years. You can take this or leave it, but Ramses II, to mention another long-lived king, was well over ninety when he died, as his mummy indicates.
Even before the formal achievement of maturity, children started working—girls in the house, helping their mothers with house hold chores and the care of younger children, boys learning the tricks of their fathers’ trades. The fact is, we don’t know much about the lives of the peasants, all of whom were illiterate and few of whom could afford tombs or other lasting monuments. When we talk about careers or professions we are talking about the small percentage of people who did leave such records—the skilled workmen, members of the professional class, and the nobility. However, even those records are scantier than we would like.
Several “autobiographies” have come down to us. Some shed an interesting light on “career tracks” for officials, but none offer any information about the ages at which these events occurred. The Egyptians dated events, when they bothered to date them at all, by the years of a particular king’s reign. One event that was never recorded was the year of an individual’s birth—and I mean any individual, king, commoner, or prince. Such information would settle a number of the arguments that still rage about the relationships of the royal families and would also enable us to state when an individual was considered old enough for marriage. It’s absolutely maddening to modern scholars.
Setting up a house hold was a proper adult activity. A man needed to beget sons to carry out his funeral ceremonies and see that his spirit was provided with food and drink. This is the formal reasoning, but it would be absurd to suppose that it was the only reason why the ancient Egyptians got married. We don’t know how often marriages were arranged by parents, but there was no seclusion of the female, and in some cases at least a boy and girl married because they had fallen in love.
Egyptian love poetry dates from a relatively late period, but we need not conclude that the state of mind it describes so eloquently only occurred after, let us say, 1200 B.C. It is a state of mind which we find quite familiar, expressed in figures of speech which sound ridiculous only to those who have never experienced the emotion in question themselves.
It is up to the boy to make his feelings known first; the girl remains modest and shy until he does so:
I met Mehi driving in his chariot, with his companions.
I don’t know how to get out of his way!
Shall I pass casually by him?
The river is the same as the road [to me].
I don’t know where to put my feet!
Seeing the unaware object of her adoration, the girl dares not betray her love; in her efforts to appear calm and unconcerned she can hardly see where she is walking. But once she knows she is beloved, she voices her longing passionately:
Oh, that you would come to your sister
Like a stallion of the king,
Chosen from among a thousand horses,
The finest of the stable!
The boy suffers from the same pains and exultations that vex a modern hero of romantic fiction. When his beloved returns his love, he indulges in boastful fantasies:
The love of the sister is on yonder bank;
The river lies between us…
and a crocodile lurks on the sandbank.
But I go into the water, and I brave the waves,
And my heart is strong in the flood.
The water is like land to my feet,
The love of her strengthens me.
It makes a water-magic for me!
When she leaves him, he sinks into a decline:
For seven days I have not seen the sister.
And sickness has overcome me.
My body has become heavy.
If the chief physicians come to me,
My heart is not satisfied with their medicines.
The magicians, there is no help in them.
My malady will not be diagnosed.
When I see her, then will I be well;
When she opens her eyes, my body is rejuvenated.
When she speaks, I am strong,
When I embrace her, she banishes evil from me.
But—it has been seven days since she left me.
These poems express romantic love. No doubt physical union is the culmination both lovers desire, but it is not the only aspect of love that interests them. Both the chagrin and the plaisir d’amour are admirably expressed. The mere presence of the beloved is enough to transport boy or girl, and a kiss makes them think they are in an earthly paradise of perfume and incense. One young man remarks ecstatically,
When I kiss her, and her lips are open,
Then I am happy even without beer!
Intoxicated with love, in other words. I remember reading somewhere that the Egyptians did not kiss, but rubbed noses. It’s another example of careless thinking. The verb translated as “kiss” is determined by the drawing of the upper half of the face, whose most prominent feature is admittedly the nose, and in some reliefs two people are shown familiarly “nose to nose.” I suppose we would use the mouth sign for kissing if we wrote with pictures, but it isn’t difficult to understand why the Egyptians did not attempt to depict osculation. It would have been tricky for an Egyptian artist to show two faces in such close contact as kissing demands; nose to nose was as close as he could get his lovers without overlapping the nasal members, which would have been against the rules. There are some depictions of actual kisses, mouth to mouth; most come from the Amarna Period, when the rules were relaxed in many respects. Certain of the Amarna reliefs show the royal couple in romantic poses. In one case Nefertiti’s head is tipped back, and it is obvious that lips, not noses, are about to meet. In another relief she presses her lips to those of one of her daughters.
The Egyptians even admitted the possibility of that fictional device, love at first sight. Ramses II fell in love with his bride, the princess of Mitanni, the moment he set eyes on her, “because she was more beautiful than anything.” And in one of the nicest of all Egyptian stories, the princess…but let’s take it in its proper order.
“Once upon a time there was a king who had no son. So His Majesty asked the gods to give him a son, and they ordered that one be born to him. He lay that night with his wife, and she became pregnant. And when she had fulfilled the months of bearing, behold, a son was born. Then came the Seven Hathors [a cross between the Fates and the good fairies] to settle his destiny. They said: ‘He will die by the crocodile, or by the snake, or else by the dog.’
“The people who were near the child heard, and they reported to His Majesty. So His Majesty’s heart became very sad. And His Majesty caused to be built, on a desert plateau, a house of stone equipped with servants and every good thing from the palace—because the boy was not supposed to go outside the house.
“When the boy grew up, being, one day, out on the terrace, he saw a dog following a man who was walking along the road. So he said to his servant, who was with him, ‘What is that thing walking behind the man who is going on the road?’ He (the servant) answered: ‘It is a dog.’ And the boy said, ‘Let someone bring me one.’ Then the servant reported these words to His Majesty, and His Majesty said, ‘Let one bring just a little dog, so that he won’t be sad.’ And so they brought him the dog.”
Reaching manhood, the boy chafes at his imprisonment and finally persuades his father to let him go, arguing that the will of the gods will be fulfilled what ever he does. Equipped in style, he sets out on his travels and ends up in Naharin, where he finds an interesting situation. “The king of Naharin had no child, except one daughter, for whom he had built a house whose window was seventy feet above the ground. He called all the sons of the princes of Syria and said to them: ‘The one who reaches my daughter’s window, to him will I give her as wife.’”
The prince, newly arrived, is welcomed by the Syrian boys because of his beauty and because of the sad tale he tells; concealing his birth, he says that a new stepmother made life at home miserable for him. He asks them what they are doing, jumping up at the high tower all day long, and they explain the situation. “And he said to them, ‘Oh, if my feet didn’t bother me, I would jump with you.’ So they went to jump, as was their daily custom, while the young prince remained aloof, to watch. And the princess of Naharin saw him.
“Now after several days had passed, the young prince went to jump with the sons of the princes. He jumped—and he reached the window of the princess of Naharin! She kissed him, and embraced him in all his limbs. They (the onlookers) went to tell her father…who asked, ‘Is it the son of one of the princes?’ They answered, ‘It is the son of an officer who has come from Egypt, running away from his stepmother.’
“So the king of Naharin flew into a great rage, and said, ‘Shall I give my daughter to a fugitive from Egypt? Let him go back!’ And they went to tell him: ‘You must return to the place from which you have come!’ But the young girl seized him, saying: ‘By Re-Harakhte, if they take him away from me I will stop eating, I will stop drinking, I will die at once!’ So the messenger went back and told her father all that she had said. And her father sent men to kill him where he was. But the young girl said: ‘By Re, if you kill him, when the sun sets I will be dead! I will not survive him a single hour!’”
Naturally the king of Naharin has to give in to his infatuated and headstrong daughter; he too is impressed by the boy’s beauty and royal manner. So the prince and the girl who fell in love with him at first sight are married. When the prince tells his bride of the destiny foretold by the Seven Hathors, she urges him to get rid of his dog; but he replies that he has raised the animal from a puppy and can’t part with him. By her watchful devotion the wife saves the prince from his first fate, the serpent; but later he is frightened by his dog, and in fleeing from the pet he runs straight into the jaws of the crocodile. The beast presents him with an “out.” If the prince will fight a water-spirit with whom the crocodile has been vainly struggling for months, he can go free.
Just at this desperate moment the manuscript breaks off; it is one of the most exasperating breaks in Egyptological literature, because we cannot be sure whether the prince escapes the snake and the crocodile only to fall victim to his own cherished pet, or whether the dog is allowed to be his salvation rather than his doom. I incline toward the latter ending, not only because I am an optimist, but because the Egyptians were optimists too; most tales of this type have happy endings. The astute reader will recognize a number of familiar elements in this story, which is less famous than I think it deserves to be. Not only do we have the immediate passion of the princess for the prince—standard emotional fare in Western fairy tales—but the disguised prince, the princess in the inaccessible tower, whose hand is to be the reward of prowess, the threatened doom, and the father’s attempt to avert it by secluding the boy. All these are elements in a dozen well-known European stories. It makes us wonder where the origins of our own folklore are to be found. And yet, from the early centuries of the Christian era up to the middle of the nineteenth century, there was not a single man on earth who could read “The Doomed Prince,” as our story is called. How then did bits of it get into “Rapunzel,” “The Princess on the Glass Hill,” and the others? Or are we dealing with basic human psychological traits or Jungian archetypes?
It seems clear, from references in the poetry and other sources, that there was no moral prohibition against physical love between young unmarried persons, nor was there any stigma attached to children born out of wedlock. What about incest and homosexuality? It is safe to say that the Egyptians didn’t share modern taboos about such things; they didn’t share a lot of our prejudices. We will talk about brother-sister marriages in the next chapter, but the question of relations between members of the same sex is still being debated.
In the “Declaration of Innocence,” made by an individual claiming moral virtue when he or she faces the tribunal of the gods, there is a denial of having “copulated” improperly—whatever that may mean. With a goat? Naturally, some Victorian scholars interpreted this as a reference to homosexuality—they were always looking for “deviations” from their rigidly narrow code—but the text does not say that. A Fifth Dynasty tomb at Sakkara belongs to two men, officials of the court. Though both had wives and children, they are shown in their joint tomb in attitudes more commonly found between husband and wife, including one “nose-to-nose” embrace. Were these men lovers? Your guess is as good as mine, though I think the evidence points in that direction. If such is the case, it is a strong indication that such relationships were accepted. There is nothing more public or indicative of a strong commitment than a shared tomb. I know of at least one other tomb that belonged to two men, a craftsman and his apprentice.
It should be added that, as was the case with husband and wife, the attitudes and positions in question are quite proper, and without overt sexual overtones. What some of us would call erotica and others would call pornography is rare in Egyptian art. When I was a student there were rumors of “dirty” statues hidden in the dark recesses of the Oriental Institute basement, but none of us ever got a look at them (yes, we tried). Times have changed; several such statuettes are now on exhibit in various museums (no, I won’t tell you which ones), and an erotic papyrus has been published. In its directness and lack of artistic merit it is somewhat reminiscent of the scenes in a certain house in Pompeii, where in my time women weren’t admitted. (But the guides would sell a lady a set of postcards if she asked nicely—i.e., didn’t refuse.)
Egyptologists can find religious or allegorical implications in practically everything, and perhaps the erotic papyrus has them, but you couldn’t prove it by me. Satire it well may be, as is almost certainly the case of a graffito in a grotto near Deir el Bahri. It depicts two people who are believed by some to represent Queen Hatshepsut and her faithful architect Senenmut. I leave the pose to the imagination of the reader.