A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, May 9, 2013

I'm Not an Egyptologist, but I Think I Can Suggest an Explanation Here ...

I hope this doesn't seem too risqué to come right after a post about a gathering of Popes.

Popular media sometimes over-dramatize archaeological finds, and oversimplify what archaeologists and Egyptologists tell them in interviews, so I'm not sure if this is a case of a quotation out of context, or what. This Los Angeles Times article starts with a sensational headline: "Uncovered: Ritual Public Sex and Drunkenness in Ancient Egypt." It quotes Egyptologist Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins, and gets off to an unpromising start:
I'll bet you that archaeologist Betsy Bryan's perspective on reality-show behavior is a little longer than most. Since 2001, Bryan has led the excavation of the temple complex of the Egyptian goddess Mut in modern-day Luxor, the site of the city of Thebes in ancient Egypt. And the ritual she has uncovered, which centers on binge drinking, thumping music and orgiastic public sex, probably makes "Jersey Shore" look pretty tame.
Well, that doesn't suggest sensationalism in any way. She's discussing ritual mass drinking and public sex in conjunction with the legends of the goddess Hathor and her related form Sekhmet (both assimilated to some extent with Mut). Mut is a mother goddess; Hathor a cow goddess seen as a fertility symbol; Sekhmet is a lion goddess with fertility aspects. She associates the practice with bringing back the Nile flood, and says:
The destruction wrought by Hathor is the background to the level of drinking that goes on in the festival: It's not just to drink but to drink to pass out. A hymn inscribed in a temple associated with the lion goddess describes young women, dressed with floral garlands in their hair, who serve the alcohol. It is described as a very sensual environment.
Okay. Fertility rituals. But then comes this curious (if correctly quoted) exchange:
Q. And what was the sex about?
A. The sex is about the issue of fertility and renewal, and about bringing the Nile flood back to ensure the fertility of the land as well. The festival of drunkenness typically occurred in mid-August, just as the Nile waters begin to rise.
We don't have the same kind of clarity as to why the sex is included as we have with the drinking. When I first speculated there was a sexual component to these rituals, I got a lot of push-back from colleagues who didn't believe it.
Since the expert seems not to  "have the same kind of clarity as to why the sex is included as we have with the drinking," perhaps a non-Egyptologist can offer a wild theory:
  1. The men, we are told, are drinking "not just to drink but to drink to pass out."
  2. They are surrounded by "young women, dressed with floral garlands in their hair, who serve the alcohol. It is described as a very sensual environment." There is no indication these young women are in any way unwilling participants.
  3. It is associated with the Nile flood, the profound symbol of fertility in Egypt for millennia.
  4. It is celebrated in temples and stories of three goddesses associated with motherhood, fertility, and sex.
You do the math.

Where's the lack of clarity as to "why the sex is included"?  It's a Bacchanalia or other similar Dionysian fertility rite in which drink, sex, and fertility are all intermixed. I suspect the professor either was misquoted or misspoke. This sounds like familiar stuff all the way back to The Golden Bough. And I'm not condoning it and no, it really did have a religious component; it's not just an excuse for an orgiastic frat house party. (Well, maybe it was, but apparently they did it in temples.)

And don't try this at home.

No comments: