The Pornographic Papyrus of Ancient Egypt
Today, we’re tackling the Turin papyrus! I could have told you about the Shroud of Turin, and maybe I will, but I found a much more entertaining subject in the meantime: a pornographic papyrus, which also goes by the code name of papyrus 55001.
In reality, this papyrus is not only pornographic, but a third of it also represents scenes of satirical animal parodies. We see there, in particular, cats attacked by mice mounted on chariots pulled by dogs.
An unusual discovery
Our sulfurous document was discovered in Egypt in 1820, in the Valley of the Kings at Deir el-Medina. Immediately, it landed in the hands of Bernardino Drovetti, the French consul in Egypt at that time. A lover of Egyptian antiquities, he selfishly placed this little treasure in his collection, already amply supplied with significant papyri and other statues found at Deir el-Medina.
In 1824, Drovetti sold his collection to the Egizio Museum in Turin, where Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832), who managed to decipher the hieroglyphs two years earlier, was sent to study and organize it. This is how Champollion comes face to face with papyrus 55001.
He discovered a meter seventy-four of disproportionate phalluses and no less than twelve completely crazy sexual positions while unrolling the papyrus. He then grabbed his quill and informed his brother of his discovery, which he described as “remains of monstrous obscenity paintings and which give me a bizarre idea of Egyptian gravity and wisdom.”
A long absence
Jean-François was not as prudish as he wanted us to think. I have read some of his correspondence, and in another letter to his brother, we see him somewhat sympathize with sin and robbery:
“I beg you to pay my respects to M. Ironside; I do not forget how much interest he takes in the pretty little feet of Egyptian ladies. It was said in Lyon that the Drovetti collection contained around fifty pairs of shoes. I do not doubt that there are several of them worthy of the attention of our venerable patron. So I intend to steal a pair or two just for him. He will then be able, like Denon, to steal love from the line of the Pharaohs.”
Still, because of its pornographic nature deemed immoral by the archaeologist, the papyrus was carefully stashed away in the museum’s storerooms, and no one had heard of it for over a century.
It wasn’t until 1971 that it was taken out of its heavy wooden crate and published by Joseph Omlin, physicist and doctor of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg. From this moment, the Egizio museum made it visible to the public, exhibited in the room of writings next to the papyrus of the gold mines (the first known geographical map ).
The dating is rather vague, but its creation is located during the Ramesside period, between 1292 and 1075 BC.
You will have noticed; papyrus 55001 is now in pieces. Almost entirely barked, its reading is difficult, if not impossible. But — fortunately — good souls have thought of preserving the heritage of ancient Egypt for the sake of art and science.
This is what the Italian archaeologist Ippolito Rosellini (1800–1843) did in the 19th century, selflessly making reproductions of the precious papyrus before it suffered further degradation, which gave us this:
So, let’s go for the twelve acrobatic positions! The scenes that you are going to see are not all easy to understand, which is why I have allowed myself to comment on them in the reading order of the papyrus, from right to left, inspired by the reflections of the Egyptologist Pascal Vernus, who looked closely at this papyrus.
A dangerous first position on our right: the man, not leaving the jug resting on his shoulder, takes care of the woman, balancing on tiptoes and fingertips. Behind them, we see two young women harnessed to a chariot on which their girlfriend is perched to be at the right height to mate.
Her partner grips her wig with one hand without releasing the flask of oil he is holding in the other. Around her right elbow is also a sistrum, the goddess Hathor instrument, a deity associated with love, sexuality, and fertility.
Then we have this lady perched on a stool on the far right. Under this stool, we can see a sistrum and a bottle of oil. The atmosphere is festive! Legs in the air, she guides her partner, who does not seem very comfortable.
He seems to be protecting himself. Pascal Vernus translated the inscriptions written around the characters; these would be the words of the young woman trying to reassure her partner: “Don’t be afraid; I will act. What is wrong with you today?”
In the center is a bizarre scene, let’s face it. Unable to explain it to you, I sought explanations from Joseph Omlin, who describes the scene as follows:
“A woman who is wearing make-up, who is sitting on a cone of ointments and next to whom a man is crouching on the ground…She is with her legs fully open, the lower part falling vertically, the vagina open and colored red. […] Instead of resting the cone on her head, while she is putting on make-up, she sat on it to perfume her genitals; […] Instead of perfuming her hair, she perfumes her sex.”
According to the researchers who wrote the Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Egyptologists, this scene represents vaginal fumigation. They describe it as follows: the woman follows the indications of the medical texts; she sits on an upside-down pot or ceramic cone, with her legs open and the tip of the pot in her vagina.
Fumigation was done by placing the preparation prescribed by the doctor on top of hot stones, which in turn were placed on a support. All of this was covered by the overturned pot. This used to cause the plant and animal products to steam up to the tip of the pot.
We reach the papyrus’s central scene; we see a bed, jugs of wine, and beer. We, therefore, understand that we are in an Egyptian brothel.
With the explanations of Pascal Vernus, it becomes even more fun. Vernus thinks the man on the right fell or was thrown out of bed by the woman, probably for his incompetence in bed. And then there’s the guy on the left who seems lethargic with his limb hanging down.
“He died on the field of honor,” said Pascal Vernus. We see that he is evacuated from the premises by three young ladies.
In the last vignette, the acrobatic festival continues with this lady to the right, perched on top of her partner’s colossal member lying on the ground.
There is also an erect mini-man hanging on the woman’s arm on the far left. Super flexible girls, guys who cling to their wigs and always that party atmosphere, with the lyre placed on the ground. In ancient Egypt, music is very often linked to sexuality and eroticism.
But beware, papyrus 55001 is not just a catalog of sexual positions. It’s much more than that. What is noticeable here is that the women, with their hip belts, their jewelry, and their heavy wigs, embody the ideal of beauty and femininity of the time.
This is not about natural hair; the vast majority of ancient Egyptians, men and women alike, had their heads completely shaved for hygiene and comfort reasons. In everyday life and especially in private, they wore wigs, braided them, added pearls, etc. For women, in particular, it was an asset of seduction and eroticism.
On our papyrus, the women adorned their headdresses with a golden crown. They are probably prostitutes, musicians, or even dancers and everything about them relates to sex, particularly the lotus flowers that adorn their heads, an eminently sexual symbol. Men, for their part, with their ape-like profiles (receding foreheads and hooked noses), are represented as “barbarians” or “boors,” according to Pascal Vernus.
For the Egyptologist, this is very clearly a caricature aimed at the transgression of moral values for the sole purpose of entertaining the reader. But who was the reader?
Thanks to the inscriptions written on the back of the papyrus, we learn a little more about this document’s holder. This one would have belonged to an aristocrat (the standard-bearer placed to the king’s right and scribe of the general). You should know that the king’s standard-bearer was a very high figure in the hierarchy, arriving just after the sandal-bearer, a sort of private secretary to the pharaoh.
I will conclude this article by quoting the eloquent Pascal Vernus:
“It is not pornography limited to libidinous contemplation; this papyrus was a work which aimed to allow the literate elite to loosen for a moment the shackles of the norm that it imposed to ensure its domination over the rest of society. This papyrus illustrates a privileged moment, a moment when the Egyptian could shake off the chains of the superego to cast, even for a brief moment, a glance at pleasure. A moment when the overwhelming figure of the father moved a little bit, but enough for a liberating light to creep through the interstices of his cast shadow.”
- Affairs and Scandals in Ancient Egypt, Pascal Vernus, 1993.