Note on Sexual Hieroglyphics

Since hieroglyphic ideograms and determinatives are often pictographic, words about sex, the sexes, sexual functions, or sexual activities might be expected to be rather graphic. They are. The Egyptian words for "breast," , "man, male," , and "penis," , all contain explicit drawings of male and female organs: namely the ideograms or determinatives for "breast," , "phallus," , and "active phallus," .

The thing we don't seem to see in New Kingdom hieroglyphics is an explicit representation of the female vulva. For "female," the determinative for "well," , is used, as in the word for "woman," . According to Gardiner [p.492], the only exception is from the Old Kingdom, where a determinative occurs, as in the word for "intercourse," , that shows a phallus actually entering a vulva. In the Middle Kingdom the "active phallus" determinative was substituted.

However, Stephen Fryer has brought it to my attention that a source referenced by Gardiner himself, G. Möller's Hieratische Paläographie [3 volumes, Leipzig, 1909-1912], gives examples [p.9] of alternatives to the "well" determinative, one of which appears to be an explicit vulva . This could then occur as a pictogram in the word for "vulva" itself, , which also contains an ideogram or determinative for a cow's uterus -- since the word can mean both "vulva" and "cow."

According to Möller, the "well" glyph began to replace the more explicit sign as early as the V Dynasty, but the latter still occurred occasionally as late as the XII Dynasty. The euphemistic tendency thus prevailed over time with the Egyptians, but perhaps squeemishness over the vulva was more overwhelming with Gardiner, who ignores the explicit representation, than it had been with the Egyptians.

Although in other languages the female genitals can be referred to euphemistically through the word for "buttocks" (e.g. Tahitian 'ohure [Hawaiian 'ôkole], cf. Robert I. Levy, Tahitians, University of Chicago Press, 1973), any Egyptian sexual references to the buttocks either didn't exist, didn't make it into the (surviving) literature, or at least didn't make it into Gardiner's grammar. The pictogram shows the hind-quarters of a "lion or leopard" [Gardiner, p.464]. It is thus used in , "hind-quarters" or "end." It can then also be used as a determinative in , "bottom." If any of these terms have human applications with sexual or erotic overtones, Gardiner gives no examples or indication. So we may be without an Egyptian counterpart of the Greek epithet for Aphrodite, Kallipygos, "Beautiful Bottom."

In Egyptian love poetry, the male lover often describes how beautiful his lover's body is -- her hair, her eyes, her arms, etc. These descriptions can include the breasts, thighs, legs, and waist, but not the buttocks. The thighs might be thought to be the most erogenous of those, apart from the breasts, but the glyphs for "thigh" are not particularly erotic: The word is "thigh" itself, with the determinative , which simply shows a leg.

Needless to say, the level of explicitness (despite the eventual avoidance of female genitalia) we see in hieroglyphics, and the fact that it drew no comment, positive or negative, from the Egyptians themselves, throws a curious light on "modern" sensibilities -- especially in the United States, where levels of undress found in France on public beaches or in fashion shows cannot be shown on television, let alone on the beaches, and even pictures or graphic representations can set off intense indignation, protest, and debate.

Outside of hieroglyphics, we see other sexually explicit images in Egyptian art. Thus, at right, we have the ithyphalic god Min. This sort of thing was not uncommon in ancient religion, and in Japan before Europeanization -- although revived, now that Europe itself has changed, especially in the hope of drawing tourists. At left we have an erotic drawing from the culture of the artists of the Valley of the Kings who lived in the village of Deir el-Medina. This figure, well endowed and falling out of bed drunk, may have been a specific individual, name Paneb. John Romer discusses him in his book Ancient Lives, Daily Life in Egypt of the Pharaohs [Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984].

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Copyright (c) 1997, 2003, 2010 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved