Ancient Egypt (the period between 3100BC and 300BC, give or take a dynasty or two) was a very powerful place indeed.
One of the six ancient cradles of civilisation, its position on the fertile banks of the Nile in north-east Africa allowed it to develop enormous wealth alongside hugely influential social and religious customs.
It’s easy to think of Ancient Egypt simply as a cluster of pyramids, complicated family trees and a pharaoh in a snazzy mask.
But its citizens were more progressive in their outlook than you might expect, especially when it came to matters of the flesh.
Virginity wasn’t important
Ancient Egyptians placed no significant value on virginity and individuals were free to pursue sexual relationships, so long as both the parties involved weren’t married to anyone else.
According to Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter, University of Chicago
Virginity was not a necessity for marriage; indeed, premarital sex, or any sex between unmarried people, was socially acceptable.
Premarital sex was perfectly OK for both men and women, but once you were married, you were expected to be faithful.
The stakes could be high, not to mention rather sexist – an unfaithful wife risked being put to death, while a straying husband was more likely to be forced into a divorce.
Prostitution was acceptable
There has been argument over the years that prostitution was all but non-existent in Ancient Egypt, but this is now thought to owe more to the moral values of Victorian Egyptologists than an accurate analysis.
The likelihood is that prostitution was commonplace.
James Bronson Reynolds wrote in Sex Morals In Ancient Egypt And Babylon:
…the scarlet woman was well-known in the land. Prostitution was probably common and among the ranks of the courtesans were many married women whose husbands had left them, and who wandered about the country practising their profession.
They were cool with same-sex relationships
Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were allegedly involved in the first same-sex relationship to be noted in history books.
As high-ranking servants of the household of Pharaoh Niuserre in mid 2400BC, the pair each held the title of Overseer of the Manicurists (good nails clearly being a thing, even back then) and were both married with children.
Despite their family backgrounds, paintings of the time show them standing nose to nose, which in Ancient Egypt was the equivalent of kissing.
In other paintings, Khnumhotep stands next to Niankhkhnum in the position usually taken by a wife.
There are different theories about the couple – including that they may actually have been conjoined twins – but the suggestion of an intimate relationship is given more weight by the fact that they were eventually buried in the same tomb, rather than with their families.
Although there is no proof that Ancient Egyptians fully accepted same-sex relationships, there is equally little to show that it was either disapproved of or penalised.
Given that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were such public figures, the assumption has to be that Egyptian society was pretty easygoing about such things.
They liked a bit of erotica
Papyrus 55,001 is otherwise known as the Turin Erotic Papyrus – and for good reason.
Discovered in Thebes in the 1820s, it was kept secret from the public until the 1970s for fear that, with its graphic depictions of sexual acts, it would offend.
This (rather lurid) clip goes so far as to describe it as ‘full on porn’:
Only fragments of the papyrus remain, but you can still see enough to understand why people were shocked by its discovery.
They knew how the reproductive system worked – sort of
The Ancient Egyptians knew that the production of semen was connected in some way to the testicles, but not quite how – they thought sperm came directly from the bones.
Their understanding of female biology was equally confusing.
Believing that the womb was directly connected to the alimentary canal, Ancient Egyptians tested for fertility by placing a clove of garlic in a woman’s vagina and waited to see if they could then smell it on her breath.
Contraception was available – and it probably worked
The Egyptians can take credit for the invention of contraception – the first written record of the use of spermicide is from 1850BC, and involved inserting crocodile dung and fermented dough into the vagina.
It’s thought that this method did actually work to some extent, probably by lowering pH levels.
Another recipe for spermicide can be found in the Ebers Papyrus from around 1500 BC.
It included seed wool, acacia, dates and honey, as well as the lactic acid (a known spermicide) produced by the acacia.
It probably also worked by physically blocking the transit of sperm.
The herb silphium is believed to have been used by the Ancient Egyptians to induce abortion, which at the time was considered as simply another form of contraception.
Ancient Egyptians even had an early form of pregnancy test
According to one unnamed papyrus, one test involved a woman urinating on the seeds of wheat and barley over the course of a number of days. And:
If the barley grows, it means a male child. If the wheat grows, it means a female child. If both do not grow, she will not bear at all.
Having power over their own fertility is almost certainly one of the reasons that Ancient Egyptians had such a free and easy attitude towards sex in comparison to other cultures – it’s much easier to be enthusiastic about sleeping around if you don’t have to worry about getting pregnant.
They knew all about sex toys
According to the Encyclopaedia Of Unusual Sex Practices, Cleopatra took living dangerously to a whole new level when she made herself a rudimentary vibrator, by filling a wooden box with live bees and then placing it against her genitals,
And the aforementioned Turin Erotic Papyrus included, among its imagery, an illustration of a woman sitting on a vase, presumably in order to pleasure herself.
Egyptians had pretty liberal ideas about incest
The parents of Egypt’s most famous son, Tutankhamen, are believed to have been brother and sister.
This wasn’t a rare situation – ancient Egyptians believed in literally ‘keeping it in the family’ in order to ensure pure bloodlines.
This custom probably also goes some way to explaining the many early deaths and health problems in the royal family.
King Tut himself was thought to have had some form of hereditary disease, resulting in a misshapen foot as well as other disabilities, and his two daughters were both stillborn.
People had sex with goats for fertility
He particularly noted a woman having sex with a ram in Mendes. In Herodotus II:46, he wrote:
Moreover in my lifetime there happened in that district this marvel, that is to say a he-goat had intercourse with a woman publicly, and this was so done that all men might have evidence of it.
And then there were the crocodiles…
According to some historians, Ancient Egyptians also learned to flip crocodiles onto their backs (to prevent them attacking) before having sex with them.
This apparently improved male virility (the fact that bestiality was technically illegal seems to have been conveniently ignored at times).
Masturbation was a magical thing
According to myths, the god Atum brought himself into existence from the watery abyss prior to Creation.
He followed this pretty impressive feat by masturbating then ingesting his own sperm, thus impregnating himself in order to produce his children, Shu and Tefnut.
When the children left him in order to explore their new world, Atum wept and his tears became the first humans.
With mythology like that, it’s no wonder that Ancient Egyptians were broad-minded when it came to sex!